During World War II and the years that immediately preceded and followed it, the Soviet Union managed to persuade a few Americans, including some Jews who were Communist sympathizers, to serve as spies.
Perhaps the most notorious of these individuals were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed in 1953. Others are mostly now forgotten, but they did manage to shorten the time it took for the Soviet Union to produce an atom bomb.
Actually, the major culprit was a German anti-Nazi scientist named Klaus Fuchs who became a Communist activist before leaving Germany for England where he earned his Ph.D. in physics and began to work on the atom bomb. He was later sent to Los Alamos where he became part of the group that produced the first atomic bomb. Fuchs had prolonged contact with Harry Gold, one of the American Communist spies, who served as a courier transferring plans and papers from Fuchs to a Soviet representative.
Gold has largely passed into the shadows of history despite the role he played in facilitating the passing of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The apt title of his new biography, “The Invisible Harry Gold,” by Allen M. Hornblum, is an appropriate characterization of its subject. However, the sub-title, “The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb,” is somewhat overdrawn since Gold was primarily a messenger, serving as a go-between.
Gold’s nefarious deeds were the subject of a novel written by Millicent Dillon and published in 2000. While she used fictional license, she essentially told the true story of how Gold, a seemingly ordinary man, wound up as a Communist spy involved with Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. Hornblum, an independent journalist and historian with three previous books to his credit, has done extensive research for what is the first actual biography of Gold.
Born in Switzerland to a young Ukrainian Jewish couple who were temporarily residing there, Gold and his parents came to the United States in July, 1914 when he was three years old. They eventually settled in South Philadelphia, an important hub of “Jewish religious, commercial, and residential life.” Initially, Gold’s father was an unskilled laborer but he eventually became a master craftsman, carving wooden cabinets for RCA products while experiencing anti-Semitism. Gold’s mother gave Hebrew and Yiddish lessons to neighborhood children. Both parents were not observant and after their bar-mitzvas, Gold and his younger brother had nothing to do with organized religion.
Growing up in the Great Depression and subjected to its hardships, Gold and his family were attracted to the Socialist Party. However, when a friend who was a Communist, helped Gold to find employment, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Gold to join the Communist Party. Instead, after Gold found a job with the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, his friend cajoled him into giving him information about the company’s industrial processes to be turned over to the Soviet Union.
Once there were no more secrets left, Gold’s handlers ordered him to serve as courier for other Communist sympathizers willing to provide information to the Soviet Union. Eventually, this led to his contact with Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and David Greenglass who was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother.
After the war ended, Gold’s assignments continued until the FBI finally arrested him. He confessed, providing full information about his misdeeds and his contacts. He testified against his former colleagues and pled guilty, receiving a sentence of 30 years in prison. He rekindled his Jewish identity in prison and used his background as a chemist to work in the hospital as a laboratory technician. Finally, in 1966, having served half his sentence, Gold was released and he died six years later.
Hornblum’s fascinating psychological portrait paints Gold as a naïve and submissive individual. These elements of a weak temperament led to his being influenced by others to become a Soviet spy despite his insistence that he loved the United States and meant it no harm. Hornblum has succeeded fully in humanizing the subject of his perceptive biography.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel.)